We are all carriers of the collective.
It’s not surprising. We’re humans, and as a species we’ve gotten where we are today because of our remarkable ability to imitate. By the time we reach adulthood we’ve loaded ourselves up with a whole bag of adaptive tricks, cumulatively known as “culture.” Participation in the collective – being “we” – isn’t only a hindrance to personal freedom and creativity; it’s also the wellspring of our ability to create. Whenever we create, every tool we use is an artifact that’s been handed down to us by our genes and our culture. Even imagining that there could be anything other than what already exists, which is perhaps the essential insight behind any act of conscious creation – imagination too is a skill. Imagination is a capability that’s uniquely human but also common to all humans, a cultural artifact that has been incrementally shaped by the generations of creators who have gone before, a skill that each individual can improve with practice, a tool that’s been shaped by the past in order that it might be used more effectively to shape the future. Even our imaginations embed us in the collective.
Still, wouldn’t it be an honor to participate in shaping the future of our species, to contribute in some small way to the incremental advancement of human culture, to create not the merely ephemeral but the one thing in a million that lasts? The sheer volume of man-made stuff testifies to the power of creation to shape reality. And it’s not just the material things; it’s also the ideas, the fantasies, the ways of seeing both what is and what is not that make up the created world. A lot of it is junk, of course, but at least some of it isn’t. To be worthy representatives of the species; to let our higher natures be drawn to true, the beautiful and the just; to put forth our best creations out of sheer love for our fellows; to transcend the “I” in service of the “we” – is it such an ignoble herd instinct after all?
Is it even necessary that we know we’ve contributed? The advance of human culture isn’t planned; it emerges spontaneously from the countless actions and interactions that comprise ordinary life. Maybe it’s just an ego thing to think of creation as a conscious individual act of heroism. Human life is a collective long-term undertaking and, like it or not, I’m not at the center of it. I don’t live “my” life; I live inside a life that includes me. It’s embedded in any number of overlapping and concentric circles – family and tribe, neighborhood and nation, company and profession – that collectively comprise the life of the species. “We” live the human life, and whatever creating there is to be done within it, “we” are the ones to do it.
We understand the idea of creation without a creator: the spontaneous emergent of order from indifferent forces. Cultural phenomena like languages and the marketplace, social status hierarchies and democratic political systems organize themselves this way; so, of course, do natural phenomena like quantum physics and chemical reactions, fetal development and the activation of neural networks. What if some combination of indifferent forces eventually managed to bring into existence a being with advanced cognitive and linguistic capabilities, possessed of curiosity and imagination and intentionality – in short, a creator? Now this creator, be he god or man, contemplates the forces that brought him forth from the formless void. He comes to understand these forces, gives them names, builds from them a system of meaning that encompasses the entire universe – in short, he creates the reality that spawned him. Because this intelligent creator of the universe came forth from and remains part of the universe itself, can it be said that the universe is really the intelligent creator of itself, the inherently indifferent and mindless forces of nature having acquired by reflection the properties of the beings they’ve generated? Instead of it happening from the beginning, though, the universe doesn’t create itself until much later, perhaps billions of years after the sequence of events that eventually begat the gods and the humans first got underway. Causality gets reversed too: instead of saying that the universe came into being because gods first created it, we’d say that the gods created the universe because the universe first came into being – or something like that. I have to admit that I’m reaching the limits of tolerance for my own rhetoric – it’s beginning to sound like some distorted mélange of Eastern mysticism, Hegel’s universal Spirit, and bad science fiction.
Without knowing quite how you got here, you find yourself at the beginning. To an observer you appear as one without history or precedent, but in fact you do have a history. You are the product of genes and chance, history and culture – mindless forces over which you exert no control. A series of accidents – or is it a unique destiny? – leads uniquely to you as an individual, but you’re floating in a wide stream that holds all mankind in its current, pulling us apart and forcing us together, making us one and making us many. Maybe your history holds you down, keeping you from being anyone other than who you are, from seeing anything new, from creating anything different. Or perhaps your history equips you with the knowledge and skills you’ll need to pursue your calling into realms never before imagined. This is the beginning, and all you have to rely on is what your history has made you, and what you’ve made of your history. It’s time to enter the interval of creation.
[Note: After a couple months off to let the text settle, I’m back to editing the Genesis 1 book. This post contains a chunk of text that I’ve chopped back severely in order to avoid exposing too much of my crackpot tendencies. But for the blog? You bet.]